The following review of Body Grammar by Jules Ohman contains one major plot spoiler of the book.
I’m on the record as being a big fan of the homoerotic haircut scene in cinema. In Body Grammar — a novel by Jules Ohman that published in June — we get a literary version of the staple. About 40 pages in, the novel’s anxious protagonist Lou asks her best friend Ivy to cut her hair. Ivy obliges. When she stops, Lou asks her to go shorter.
When Ivy was done, all that was left was the top, curly and wild. It hadn’t taken that long for her to look like a completely different person: her face thinner and more intense, her jawline a sharp hook, her eyebrows less worried and more concentrated. It wasn’t that she looked all-the-way-boy, exactly, but she didn’t look like a girl. She looked visible.
Since she was 14, Lou has been approached by modeling scouts. In malls, on sidewalks, outside while she’s working her summer job for a lawn service, the women come up to Lou and press their business cards into her hand, make it clear they see something about her physicality that they think could, well, make them money. Lou sheepishly turns down these offers but also saves the cards, hiding them from Ivy.
Lou likes Ivy, that much is certain. It’s seen right away in how Lou shoots Ivy on her camera. Ivy also likes Lou. When Ivy and Lou take a roadtrip to see Ivy’s band Fortunato perform, Ivy surprises Lou with a song she has written about her. “It’s bigger than we both knew / Please come on come on / Lou Lou Lou.”
I mean, does it get much more obvious than that?
And yet, Lou doesn’t really take the hint. Or, at least, she’s too frazzled by the events immediately preceding Ivy’s very public declaration of love. Moments before, Lou has a fumbling, alcohol-fueled hookup with her friend Catherine, a troubled trackstar and sibling to Morgan, a university student with fashion design ambitions. The novel brims with missed connections and misunderstandings, its characters just slightly out of rhythm with each other so as to accidentally sow subtle emotional chaos.
If there’s somewhere Lou truly belongs in the fashion industry, it’s probably behind the camera. But life has other plans.
In a tragic accident early on in the book, Morgan dies. This has an immediate impact on the story. Lou drifts away from Ivy and feels bereft and confused, having lost someone who she didn’t really know but also whose death she was there to witness. She isn’t sure what to do with all these confusing grief-feelings and the trauma of the tragedy, so she grasps at ways to change things. This starts with the aforementioned haircut. But then she makes a wilder choice. She decides to defer her college acceptance and throw herself into the dizzying whirlwind of the high-fashion modeling world. The novel sprawls out from here, Lou encountering new friends, lovers, friend-lovers as she moves her entire life from Portland to New York but also constantly returning to the people in her before-life, like Ivy and Catherine. Through all of this, the novel’s early death echoes, a reminder of the fragility of bodies, of the uncertainty of life.
Body Grammar does its best work in its quiet contemplations of grief and heartbreak but also in the ways it weaves gender and queerness into its narrative. Here are several queer characters with several different queer narratives. All of the characters feel distinct in their understandings of their genders, sexualities, and relationship structures. Some characters are poly, some monogamous, some unsure. There’s queer yearning, but there are also established queer relationships, breakups, divorces, it’s-complicated situationships. Some characters are more out than others, but never once does it feel like there’s a coming out story in Body Grammar. These are more like stories of young people coming into themselves. There’s confusion as to what they really want, what they desire. But there’s also a freeness to the way they consider these parts to themselves, even set against the rigidly gendered backdrop of the fashion industry.
“This was a whole new body grammar,” Lou observes when watching Harrison, her first model friend pose shortly after she decides to give modeling a shot. The novel constantly expands and illuminates its many body grammars, Lou’s feelings on her gender presentation more nuanced and between-lines than language often makes room for.
She’d never minded being mistaken for a boy, but she’d never wanted to be a boy either. She liked her androgyny and liked other androgynous women. But she liked it even better now, in this heightened form. The designers and stylists liked it too.
This tension courses throughout Body Grammar, too — the fact that Lou’s authentic presentation is also something desirable to others, to the people shaping her for their own uses. It can be all the more difficult to figure out who you really are when you’re being told how to be. There’s an edge of avoidance and maybe even of self-destruction to Lou’s decision to model, but her other post-tragedy transformation — asking Ivy to cut off her hair — feels like a rare moment of Lou knowing exactly what she wants and how she wants to be seen. “She looked visible.” Soon, she’ll be over-visible, modeling perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having zero control over how one’s perceived.
Other characters struggle with contradictions and outside pressures, not knowing what’s being said in their own voice and what’s coming from the outside. Like Catherine, who isn’t totally sure how to identify. Catherine has a drunken blow up at Morgan’s memorial, and Lou later asks about it:
“What did you mean at the memorial,” Lou said, “that Morgan thought you were selfish?”
Catherine didn’t answer right away, but when she did, her voice was heavy and stiff. “I came out to her in eighth grade. I told her, you know, not only do I like girls, but maybe I’m not even a girl myself, I don’t know. And she told me not to tell my parents.”
Later on in the book, Catherine tells Lou she’s fine with she/her pronouns for now, likes the way her gender presentation confuses people but also admits she could just be scared of announcing a change. Body Grammar doesn’t pressure Catherine to commit to a clearly defined identity. I can’t stop thinking about how perfect the title is, how this novel presents such an expansive and ever-shifting and varied grammar for bodies, for identities.
The book features messy makeouts and messy hookups and messy relationships throughout — all of them queer as fuck. Body Grammar is most compelling when it’s in these between-boundaries, hard-to-define spaces like Lou’s feelings on androgyny. Lou and Ivy’s will-they/won’t-they arc hinges on that tingling tension of two people just constantly getting in their own ways. Lou eventually begins a new relationship with fellow model Thayer. The sex writing gives just enough, not withholding but not surrendering everything over to the reader, a balance that works well for a novel so steeped in youthful exploration and uncertainty:
It felt heady and strange to be kissing someone she didn’t know well but was extremely attracted to. Her body hummed as Thayer took off her shirt and peeled down her jeans, then lay there, looking up at Lou. Lou asked what she wanted, and Thayer told her. Lou didn’t know what to do, but she knew how to follow directions. She could put her mouth there and there and there, and she could move her tongue like that and that, and she could do everything that was asked of her, especially if she was asked like that, and it turned out she could it all well, like really well. Thayer smelled and tasted delicious and Lou was so hungry, and as soon as it was over, she wanted to do it again.
The prose often has the diaristic feel of the above passage, the novel told in a close-third person from Lou’s wandering perspective. Ohman writes on bodies exquisitely, and the modeling world is fleshed out with great worldbuilding details (Ohman was a model in high school). Where the modeling industry is harsh, all sharp angles and hard edges, Ohman’s prose is soft and sweet, a juxtaposition that works well.
The novel is stronger on a character level — both in terms of its interiority and its bodied language — than on a plot one. The ending reads as too pat, Lou and Ivy’s conclusion too neat when really the two are perhaps most interesting when they’re kind of fucking things up with each other. Again, the novel’s best when it lets things be messy and uncertain. Catherine and Lou’s friendship is one of the most complex relationships in the book, difficult to define, sometimes fraught, but full of tender care. Its their platonic love story that actually has a more compelling arc than Lou and Ivy’s.
There’s also an interesting ambivalence to the way the modeling world functions in the story. It is, more often than not, a looming villain. The models have to change everything about themselves to fit conventional beauty standards, leaving their homes and families and ultimately controlled by their agencies. They’re told what to eat, but the agencies also have financial control over them, Lou realizing at one point that she has to book gigs in order to pay back her agency money she owes for rent and travel. But at the same time, it’s more complicated than just a villainous presence. There’s something to be said of the fact that even within its strict confines, Lou finds herself in her new life in New York. Even though Portland is her home, it becomes a haunted place after Morgan’s death, and modeling offers a way out. Also, by leaving, she’s able to fix her relationship to Portland, to the people she left behind. And through modeling, she also makes meaningful connections with others, and even the relationships that end aren’t failures but cumulative experiences for Lou to further figure out what she wants and who she is. Again, that contrast between the rough reality of working in fashion and the prose the story is told in is effective. Ohman avoids romanticizing fashion but also doesn’t make this into a modeling dystopia or a lampooning of the industry.
Modeling doesn’t have to be something Lou does for a long time for it to have had a profound and mixed impact on her life. So much of Body Grammar is about trying new things, even if they don’t work out. Lou fears uncertainty, but she also hurls herself at it. Reading Body Grammar reminds me of all the times I’ve done a dramatic hair change of my own, of that first look in the mirror, a transformation into who I see myself as. The novel reminds us it’s okay to change the grammar we use for ourselves and who we are.